Are Cardholders Being Taught to Engage in Friendly Fraud?

Are Cardholders Being Taught to Engage in Friendly Fraud?

February 14, 2019

by Steve Durney, Senior Vice President, Market Strategy, Ethoca

[Editor's note: February is Friendly Fraud Month at Card Not Present (sponsored by Ethoca). From benign (well, relatively) to hostile, friendly fraud accounts for a growing share of overall fraud losses for CNP merchants. Check back here throughout the month for updated content detailing how merchants can more effectively spot friendly fraud and what they can to do mitigate its effects.]

When consumers dispute purchases on their payment cards that they or another member of their household actually made, they’re engaging in “friendly fraud.”

Much of today’s friendly fraud is benign—cardholders dispute purchases that show up on their card statements because they don’t recognize them. How the merchant’s name is listed on the statement may be confusing, or another household member could have made the purchase without the cardholder’s permission or awareness. Other cases are not so innocent. Unfortunately, incidents of hostile friendly fraud—where cardholders use various means to actively ‘game’ the system for their own benefitare also on the rise.

Have our current card industry rules and practices caused a big increase in both benign and hostile friendly fraud disputes?

Consider today’s “zero liability” card policies. About 10 or 15 years ago—amid calls for greater consumer credit protections around the world and the passage of the Dodd-Frank bill in the U.S.—many issuers began dropping their fees for disputes. Rather than holding cardholders accountable for the first $25 or $50 of disputed charges, most issuers dispensed with the fees entirely, making disputes easy and seemingly risk-free for consumers—even when it’s ultimately determined that those consumers are indeed liable for the disputed purchases.

Here’s a common scenario: Let’s say a cardholder disputes a $20 charge that her spouse made without informing her. The issuer will first issue a provisional credit back to her account, as required by regulation. Beyond that, the issuer has a tough economic choice to make. It could:

  • Investigate the details around the disputed charge—spending money and time to do so—and, if the charge is determined to be legitimate, add the disputed amount back to the cardholder’s account.
  • Write off the disputed charge as a loss without an investigation. This could be cheaper because of the low value of the disputed purchase compared to the cost of an investigation. Moreover, it can avoid jeopardizing the relationship with an otherwise responsible and loyal cardholder.

The economic choice for the issuer is a tough one because either way it loses money due to the dispute. So, it must decide whether the cost of the investigation is worth it—both in dollars and customer loyalty.

The ease with which cardholders can dispute charges today has led to a moral hazard. Cardholders may be tempted to file a dispute any time they don’t recognize a charge on their statement. Or they may dispute charges because they don’t feel they were justified. For example, someone may dispute an extra fee that an airline charged because they don’t feel the charge was warranted even though they agreed to it at the airline’s check-in counter. Issuers have been challenged with trying to balance the consumer protection regulations they must adhere to along with the murky realities of customers’ credit card use.

In an ideal world, merchants and issuers would save millions of dollars in chargeback fraud costs and dispute investigation costs if consumers took the time to fully ensure the charges they were disputing were in fact fraudulent—rather than simply clicking the dispute button any time they don’t recognize a charge.

The Evolution of Cardholder Behavior

This inadvertent training of consumers to dispute transactions instead of taking accountability for them has been an evolution.

Here’s the common continuum of a cardholder’s friendly fraud journey:

  1. Awareness: Cardholder spots an unknown charge and experiences how easy it is to dispute transactions. Perhaps they’ve had to deal with legitimate fraud and have seen how quickly issuers were able to dispute and resolve those fraudulent charges.
  2. Benign “Do Not Recognize”: Cardholder has a true experience of not recognizing a charge initially on their card and disputes it. The issuer and merchant may just give them the credit without investigation because the cost of a chargeback is more than simply issuing the refund.
  3. Path-of-Least-Resistance Moment: Cardholder realizes it is hassle-free and fast to contact the issuer rather than the merchant to get a credit for a disputed purchase.
  4. Fuzzy Morality Drives Abuse: Cardholder may rationalize disputing charges they don’t instantly recognize or want to pay for. They may not acknowledge their action is true fraud. This starts a more regular pattern of purchase and dispute because the cardholder often wins without being penalized.

Real-Time Solutions That Reduce Disputes

Unless the current way issuers and merchants handle card disputes changes, we’re continuing to train cardholders to dispute charges—driving up the costs associated with friendly fraud, as well as increasing false declines of legitimate transactions.

One solution to reduce or eliminate friendly fraud is to provide cardholders and issuers with detailed transaction information. This would reduce confusion and make it clear to the cardholder that the issuer and merchant have proof that they in fact made the purchase with their card. For example, if the card statement includes a digital receipt that shows the exact time and place of a transaction — including the IP address and geographic location of the computer used for any ecommerce charge — cardholders would be able to more quickly and easily recognize purchases they made.

In light of today’s regulatory environment, using data to provide more real-time solutions that present helpful information about legitimate purchases can reduce the need for cardholders to dispute transactions and significantly cut down on the rate of friendly fraud — protecting merchants and issuers from lost revenue and the expenses associated with chargebacks.

Want to Learn More?

Want to learn more about the increasingly damaging effects of friendly fraud and what solutions exist to stem the tide?

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Steve Durney